Rachid al-Daif
Rashid al-Daif

I want only that readers find pleasure in their reading

Lebanese novelist and poet Rashid al-Daif lives between Beirut where he teaches Arabic at the Lebanese University and his family home in a mountain village. His novel Azizi al-Sayid Kawabata (Dear Mr Kawabata), has been translated into eight European languages (reviewed in Banipal’s last issue). Here we present an excerpt from his latest novel Learning English, translated by Paul Starkey. Rashid al-Daif is considered a vibrant voice among modern Arab novelists and I met up with him in Amsterdam earlier this year, where he was speaking at an Arab Writers’ Forum on the autobiographical novel, held by the European Cultural Foundation. He spoke to Margaret Obank (in French) about these two novels.

My novel, Learning English, researches identity. The narrator is, like me, married, a professor like me, glasses like me, nearly the same age, but he’s not me. He’s an only child, unlike me who is from a family of eight children. Through a chance reading of a newspaper, he discovers that his father was murdered three days earlier in a vendetta killing. He becomes crazy, furious. He knows first-hand the vendetta culture, but now it affects him directly. Why didn’t anyone telephone him? He is hooked up to the internet, has a mobile phone, an ordinary phone, a Post Box, everything you can imagine. He’s a very modern type, he’s for modern prose poetry, he’s for progressive movements.  
He’s learnt French and has been very happy with it because it’s the language of highly developed socialist thinking, unlike English which he sees as a language of commerce. But that changes because he adores the internet.
 He goes over his life and then realises that his uncles haven’t contacted him because they don’t really believe that he is the son of their brother. His mother had been a lover of one of his uncles, only marrying his father on a whim, and during their 30 years of marriage she had slept with him only once. So, was he the fruit of his father or of the other, his uncle? Because of that his uncles don’t contact him when his father is killed.

What is a writer?

People call me a writer. I don’t know if I am a writer, although I write. I don’t say that purely for the sense of paradox, it’s a real feeling. What is it to be “a writer”? What can I say? I write. I live for writing. I have always written, although I haven’t always published what I’ve written. I have been writing since my adolescence, but when I wrote something then I hid it. When I was twenty, twenty-one, or so, I published some things in newpspapers – poems. But the first things I published were two short novellas in a daily Beirut newspaper, Al-Jareeda, which doesn’t exist any more. Some years later I published poems. But then during the whole period of the civil war and the struggle, I stopped publishing – there were so many other things to do while the war was going on. After it ended I started to publish again. I published a bilingual Arabic-French poetry collection, L’ÈtÈ au tranchant de l’ÈpÈe, in 1979. After that I turned to prose writing, publishing two novels, both also being published in French.

Progress and modernity

In Dear Mr Kawabata I discuss the idea of progress. It is the story about modernity as it was lived by my generation, for whom modernity was a shock. It is the story of our country. I look at how we have taken on board modern ideas how we value them, how they exist within us, how we evaluate them, how they suceed.
What does Mr Kawabata mean for me – and for Rashid, the protagonist of the novel? At the time, I had just read Kawabata and I liked his work. It touched me. Sometimes reasons are very simple, but there are two things. I can say, for one, how things have happened, that is possible, but for me to say why is very difficult. Well, I simply read his books. And, secondly, I had just come out of a war of atrocity. I myself, had had, just like many others, some very sad and some very hard experiences in the war. I wanted and needed to play out the impact which that grand deception had made on me – and it was the deception of a whole generation, not just of me. I was not the only one duped, it was general. And I wanted to address someone, but someone neutral because then it would be possible to convince him. One could tell such a person so many things.
This person is Japanese, very far away, really far away. And also he’s not an Arab, not affected, not from the East, although he is concerned in a certain sense with the East but with a different character. He is a Japanese man who committed suicide, who was fascinated by Nothingness. It was a suicide not for a cause, but simply a call to Nothingness, which unfortunately is fascinating. This certainly drew Rashid, because with us, there is a tradition of dying for a cause, for something. But Kawabata killed himself for nothing. He is nothing. He is not against anything. He is outside the actors and yet is part of everything. He is virgin. Thus he could listen to my opinion. He wouldn’t miss anything. I could confide in him, tell him of the deception I suffered.
I have to say one thing that is very important: when I speak of reading, I read with distance. I create a distance between me and the book; there is a difference, as a reader, from when I write because I am sure that the moment of writing is different from the moment of speaking of or reading what one writes. The two things are absolutely different. Sometimes the writer is the last one to understand what he has done.

Creation of the narrator

And I ask my readers: Is Kawabata really a man? Perhaps a woman? It is a little like that. For a great confession such as Rashid’s, it would be normal to be to a woman. In a certain sense, Kawabata is a creation of the narrator, he is not only the true, historical Kawabata. He is part constructed by the narrator to facilitate the confessional process.
This novel is very autobiographical and, at the same time, it is not. It has a style which has to do with a lived experience. It is about reality, but the moment at which this reality happens becomes less true when placed in a structural context. When it becomes a text, it no longer is a reality. It stops being real. It is a reality in language, but in a languge that is built and structured, and the moment it is that, it is no longer an exact mirror of reality.

A collective “I”

Let’s take this example: Rashid, the first-person narrator, talks in detail about his mother and father, when they were married, etc, and then how he himself was born. Well, everything he says is “true”, but how? There is a way of being, of becoming, in that community through its own image. Rashid recounts the image of the community, in the first person, and so therefore it’s a collective “I”. It is truth but a textual truth. It is in that sense that I say the novel is both true and untrue. Everybody likes a simple explanation but it’s more complex than that. This is the reality that has been lived, it’s the reality of Lebanon.
I think that I changed after I finished writing this novel. When I was writing it I wanted to say something to the readers. But now I no longer have any desire to say anything to them whatever has happened. I want only that readers of my words feel pleasure in their reading. That is all. As long as literature has to search to say something to its readers, it will not be well received. It is only when literature creates pleasure for the reader that it will be successful – and I say this to Arab readers before I say it to non-Arabs as there is a great abyss between books and Arab readers. If this abyss didn’t exist, then they would be like non-Arab readers. And to succeed in winning Arab readers is also to succeed in winning non-Arab readers. This is why that I have a tendency now to say I have nothing to say to anyone whatever happens.